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Poor Self-Esteem Runs in the Family. Here’s How to Break the Cycle.

Children start building self-esteem as early as 5-years-old — marking a crucial time for parents to get involved.

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Self-esteem is a lot like Ikea furniture — few parents know how to build it correctly and a lot of kids risk getting hurt because of it. Scientists suspect that the key to developing self-esteem is starting early when children are young and their brains are still developing. This is part of the reason that low self-esteem seems to run in the family. An adult with poor self-esteem is likely to focus on themselves rather than their kids. The problem with this is that it’s much easier to build self-esteem in kids, so it makes logical sense for the focus to start with them, to break the cycle, and then get on the more difficult task of following suit as an adult.

The first thing parents need to do is to forget their fears of raising tiny megalomaniacs. “There is no such thing as too much self-esteem. Self-esteem comes from your understanding of yourself and the world around you,” psychiatrist Dr. Lea Lis told Fatherly. “Your self-esteem can not be too healthy.”

Researchers have only recently discovered that children start to develop self-esteem as early as 5-years-old. This is when the brain starts to create thought and behavioral patterns known as schemas, or “packets of information which are accumulated and stored in the neural networks of your brain over long periods of time,” Lis explains. 

Experiences and feedback shape both positive schemas, or thoughts like, “I am smart,” “I am kind,” and “I am capable.”  Depending on the experiences and the feedback being given, negative schemas form and become harder to correct over time. Young children are taking in an enormous amount of data from the world around them as their neural networks are just starting to form. This makes their schemas more flexible, but also more delicate. The right messages make as big of a difference as the wrong ones.

Self-esteem, therefore, isn’t built on praise in itself, but the right kind of praise. Namely, parents don’t want to praise kids for just doing things well, but also when they try and fail. While some parents worry about too much self-esteem leading narcissism, this is actually a psychological response to low self-esteem. Narcissists only derive worth from their wins and need constant praise to keep their big, fragile egos from shattering. In other words, praise isn’t the problem — it’s more of a symptom, and occasionally, a scapegoat. Likewise, the idea of raising tough and resilient kids who don’t depend on praise comes from high self-esteem. These are the people know their worth regardless of what happens. 

Psychotherapist John Mathews points out that a more accurate, or at least less weighted, term for “self-esteem” is “self-efficacy,” or the belief in an ability to solve problems and have agency over what happens in life. Rather than raising kids who think they’re great, self-efficacy is more about raising kids who have purpose and meaning in their lives.  “You can help a child build self-efficacy by encouraging him or her to try to solve problems independently,” says Matthews. “As a parent, you want to praise your child’s efforts, regardless of outcome.” 

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In other words, unconditional positive feedback regardless of outcome is key, but many parents today were not raised on that, so it is more difficult than they expect. Parents with low self-esteem are prone to pass it onto their kids regardless of positive feedback they give their kids because they’re modeling low self-worth. Since their schemas are more developed, parents’ low self-esteem is also harder to correct because they’ve been listening to the wrong messages for so long. Kids pick up on all of this and might eventually start to believe that they’re not good enough either. 

Like putting on their oxygen mask on an airplane, parents are going to have to take care of their own low self-esteem first before they can work on their kids. This can be incredibly difficult for exhausted parents who feel like they’re failing regularly, but it is crucial for raising kids who feel good about themselves. Dr. Lis recommends cognitive behavioral therapy as well for starters, as well as the book “Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy by Richard Burns, which gives further insight into why it takes so long to reverse negative self-perceptions, but it is possible and probably more than worth it.   

“Children learn to see the world through the eyes of their caregivers,” Lis warns. “If parents are putting themselves down, or are fearful or distrust others, they are likely to pass down these traits to their children.”

And like a treehouse or bunk bed, self-esteem may be hard to build, but just because you grew up without it doesn’t mean your kid should have to.